The bells toll
Exit Khatamism. Enter radical reform
By Ahmad Sadri
March 26, 2003
It was all in vain. By the end of February many of the heroes and stars of Iran's
reformist movement had pleaded for popular participation in Iran's municipal council
elections. Taking advantage of the absence of vetting by the right-wing Council of
Guardians (applied to the presidential and parliamentary elections), a long line
of reformers were running on several slates. This was perceived as yet another opportunity
to drag the conservatives in the mud of their fifth humiliating defeat in as many
But the foregone conclusion proved premature. The turnout was a disappointment (only
12% in Tehran and 38% nationwide) and the result, a devastating defeat for the reform.
After four landslide victories (in parliamentary, municipal councils and two presidential
elections) the reformers were routed. In his usual, understated and anemically polite
manner, President Mohammad Khatami likened the event to "alarm sound" for
"Death knell" would have been an apt analogy. Waking up to the windfall
of winning by default, the conservatives tried to celebrate and even pound their
collective chest in triumph. But everyone knew that winning by five percent of the
popular vote is not the stuff of Islamists' populist daydreams. The eloquent silence
of the majorities was to some extent affective. The rare valor of a dozen representatives
in the parliament (most of them women) no longer seemed enough to legitimate the
cause of political reform.
On March 1st Iranians said no to the career moves of the usual pseudo-reformers
who have made a habit of riding the reform wave to a legislator's seat only to turn
lobbying tricks for economic and political special interests. By staying away from
the polls the reform minded majorities of Iranians did more than signal that they
would not be taken for granted. They symbolically threw up their hands and gave up
on the incompetent and pusillanimous leadership of the reform in the face of an aggressive
and hegemonic right wing.
The lack of mass participation in the elections also fits the mold of a rational
decision. Refusal to participate in business-as-usual politics of the Islamic Republic
is the logical consequence of loss of faith in the system as a legitimate political
arena. The prime mover of this increasing delegitimation is the right wing's refusal
to heed the will of the people.
The right wing never accepted its electoral defeats. Its legal and extralegal
counterattacks started shortly after Khatami's 1997 election with the arrest and
trial of Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, (the competent, reformist mayor of Tehran) and
the assassination of Said Hajjarian (the leading genius of the reform politics.)
In the words of one of the reform intellectuals, in its first foray, the right wing
eliminated the twin symbols of modernization and modernity.
Then came the summer of 1999 when the right-wing shut down three quarters of the
reformist media and brutalized the students who had demonstrated against the closures.
In the last three years the right-wing's assault has continued unabated through the
arrest and imprisonment of reformists on trumped-up charges of blasphemy, treason
and espionage as well as the systematic sabotage of the reform parliament by the
veto power of the Council of Guardians as well as an "executive decree"
of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenie.
How did President Khatami handle the fierce, frontal attack on the reform? He didn't.
Ignoring his twice won mandate, President Khatami continued to flash his urbane smile
and walk softly; he did not carry a big stick, or even a toothpick. In their besieged
Troy the reformers needed a Hector; Khatami played a Paris. In the thick of the right
wing onslaught of 1999 on reform media and students he was nowhere to be found. As
the absentee leader of the reform he dithered, shed tears, recited poetry, complained
and appeased. The reform movement's darkest hour was Khatami's infamous preemptive
After twenty million Iranians had reelected the reformer president, Khatami chose
a cabinet that did not include a single reformer. His only firm stance at the outset
of his presidency led to the arrest of the so called rouge elements of the Ministry
of Intelligence that were charged with the serial murders of the dissidents. The
trials of the perpetrators, however, were allowed to ground to a halt in the partisan
quagmire of the right wing Judiciary.
Last week, Khatami walked out of a session of the right wing Expediency Council
that was fixing to usurp the prerogative of parliament and legislate a four-hundred
percent budget increase for another right wing body, the Council of Guardians. Like
almost anything else he can do at this point, this was too little and too late. It
appears that Khatami and his lieutenants have squandered an invaluable historical
opportunity to reform the Islamic Republic from within. And yet, there is no evidence
that Iranians are thinking of another revolution.
This is not the end of reform -- but the beginning
of the end of the "political reform". There is an alternative form of reform
that is emerging. I call this the "radical reform." Last year the tip of
the "radical reform" iceberg broke the surface when the reformist ideologue
Abbas Abdi (formerly one of the masterminds of the American embassy takeover in1979-80)
called for reformers to deny the regime its fig leaf of legitimacy by withdrawing
from the government.
Behold the iceberg. The ideological grid of the emerging radical reform was laid
down in a manifesto that, Akbar Ganji (an intrepid investigative journalist that
had looked into the terrible dungeon of the serial murders of dissidents and the
malfeasance of the clan of the former president Rafsanjani) wrote from his prison
cell. The former intelligence officer in the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards bluntly
labeled the attempts to reconcile Islam and Democracy a failure and advocated a political
campaign for "pure republicanism."
Along these lines (albeit in a less religiously rebellious manner) two strident
and openly anti-Khamenie letters have been published by private citizens with good,
if dated, revolutionary credentials. Ghasem Sholeh Sadi [See: Meltdown]
and Mohsen Sazgara share Ganji's disenchantment with the current mixed constitution
of the Islamic Republic and openly call for what has been the worst kept secret of
the reform agenda: the desire to revise the Constitution of the Islamic Republic
with the aim of removing its theocratic core. They also recommended such radical
strategies as open defiance of the arbitrary "red lines" of the IRI: refusing
to participate in the routine electoral processes, selective and creative political
action and civil disobedience. Boycotting an election seems compatible with this
new spirit of defiance.
radical reform shall not repeat the mistakes of the political reform by credulously
playing with the loaded dice of the present system. Its underlying ideas are secular,
liberal-democratic and republican. In time the radical reform will find appropriate
vehicles for its political expression. The post-election announcement of secession
of the OFUSU (Office for Fostering Unity between the Seminary and the University
is a formerly right-wing organization that has transubstantiated into a reform mobilization
center) from the main coalition of political reformers was a first step in that direction.
What remains of the political reform is going to lick its wounds, present a single
slate and campaign hard for the elections next year. It will be wise to co-opt (or
at least plagiarize) aspects of the emerging radical reform movement. Otherwise,
it will wash over the shores of the parliamentary elections of 2004 with all the
force of a wave of the past.
Ahmad Sadri, is the Professor and Chairman of the Department of Sociology and
Anthropology at Lake Forest College, IL, USA. See Features
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